It’s an age-old debate, an ongoing tussle between junior A hockey supporters and promoters of the major junior game.
The numbers don’t lie — Western Hockey League players advance to the pro ranks at a quicker rate than those at the lower level, and, as the argument goes, are therefore beneficiaries of a superior product. At the same time, there are junior A fans who insist that the product they watch is not inferior to the major junior game, at least in entertainment value.
Regardless, the fact remains there are numerous junior A skaters who are capable of playing at the next level, and WHL teams are only too happy to latch on to those who are willing to make the jump.
The Red Deer Rebels have been willing participants in the raid of junior A players over the years, with one such example being current roster player Brandon Hagel, a Morinville native who this season played three games with the Whitecourt Wolverines of the AJHL — scoring once and adding two assists — before joining the WHL squad.
The six-foot, 165-pound winger had already attracted the attention of U.S. college scouts, but decided that he could fast-track his pro aspirations by suiting up with the 2016 Memorial Cup tournament host Rebels.
“It was tough because I’ve talked to a few (U.S.) colleges this year,” Hagel said after signing with the Rebels in September. “I wasn’t sure which route to take, so it was a tough decision. But I think I made the right one for myself.
“We’re going to have a good team this year and obviously, for myself, it’s going to be good as well with all the exposure and the Memorial Cup … everything should be good.”
Hagel, of course, hasn’t missed a beat while skating at the higher level. Through 43 games, the 17-year-old is the Rebels sixth-leading scorer with eight goals and 31 points in 43 games.
And yet, he’s not the lone example of the junior A skater who has jumped to the Rebels without any previous major junior experience.
The prime specimen in this particular scenario came aboard in 2002 after leading the BCHL in scoring the season previous and being selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the fourth round of the NHL entry draft.
Matt Ellison was not only an instant hit with the Rebels, he led the team in scoring during his lone winter in Red Deer, firing 40 goals and recording 96 points in 72 regular-season games, then collecting 20 points (7g,13a) in 22 playoff contests.
He went on to appear in 43 NHL games — during which he put up 14 points, including three goals — before taking his act overseas. Ellison currently plays with Minsk Dynamo of the Kontinental League and helped the Canadian team win the recent Spengler Cup tournament.
The Rebels have welcomed other junior A players who previously competed in the WHL, with the likes of Rhyse Dieno, Carter Smith, Kraymer Barnstable, Justin Taylor — all of whom contributed to various degrees — and Scott Feser coming to mind.
The list of former seasoned junior A players who jumped to the Rebels without experiencing the major junior game includes:
• Dustin Moore — The Red Deer product was a 24-goal scorer with the Olds Grizzlys in 2004-05 and collected 35 points (16-19) in 46 games with the AJHL squad the following season before joining the Rebels in October of 2006.
The rugged winger contributed 20 goals and 28 assists in 64 regular-season games and another six points (4-2) during the club’s brief playoff run.
Nick Charif — Edmonton native Charif jumped from the Victoria Grizzlies of the BCHL to the Rebels in 2013 and helped solidify the club’s blueline.
A rearguard with an offensive touch, Charif scored three goals and added 10 helpers in 57 games during the 2013-14 WHL season and produced a goal and seven assists in eight games the following campaign before being dealt to the Spokane Chiefs.
Shaden Moore — Another Edmonton product, Moore played two winters with the AJHL St. Albert Saints prior to joining the Rebels in 2004.
Moore played 46 regular-season and playoff games with Red Deer in the ‘04-05 season and another eight the next season before moving on to appear in a handful of contests with the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Calgary Hitmen. From there, he was a three-year member of the University of Alberta Golden Bears.
Nick Bell — The Innisfail product starred with the Okotoks Oilers of the AJHL for one season before being lured to the Rebels in 2009.
Bell suffered a severe ankle injury in October and missed 34 games after undergoing surgery. The defenceman’s WHL career consisted of 36 regular- and post-season games, during which he scored one goal and recorded 13 points.
He was back with Okotoks the following season and went on to play college and university hockey at Mount Royal in Calgary.